Archive for September, 2008

The Herd Effect

We digital citizens are sometimes described as a herd.  We follow leaders, gather at certain places to exchange information, roam.  The herd can muster collective action, very much like swarms, using the most basic signals and feedback.  The herd is also a New Commons and its social capital is digital information.  We can just feed on it, like at the social networking sites, or we can take action, like at the crucial time of the Orange Revolution.  The idea is the collective, the possible aggregation of information to make sense.

Following a part of the herd, I registered at Herdict.org a couple of weeks ago.  I became member number 58.  Herdict.org is a website designed and managed by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society @ Harvard University.  The name comes from the fusion of “Herd” and “Verdict”.  The site aims to collect the verdict of the herd on various issues.  The first two are PC Health and Network Health.   Using a piece of software installed on every herd member’s PC, reports are sent back to Herdict.org with information about its characteristics, installed software and apparent problems. 

Given a large enough number of herd members active in the system, it could be a good source of information about which applications are causing trouble, which malware is extending and giving the herd a though time.  But it could also signal problems with the Network itself.  Problems that go beyond the merely technical.  For example, it could spot areas or countries where Internet access is being cut off, or filtering and blocking of sites is being practiced.   This could make it easier for digital citizens to by-pass restrictions on Internet access and censorship by using tools like Psiphon.  As such it could become a valuable tool for ICT4D and the movement for an open Internet.

But also other possibilities arise.  These are not at once evident, but Herdict.org could be a call for collaboration of a very different sort.  In one Gedankenexperiment, herd members could put to use their healthy computers to assist and clean up infected computers or “zombies”.  In this way a user that has advanced knowledge on how to fight off malicious software could help many users worldwide that don’t have the skills or that don’t know that their PCs have been sequestered.  Herdict.org could very well become a place to start such actions and measure success.

See an article in MIT Technology Review: The Web’s Dark Energy: Community policing can make the Web safe, by J. Zittrain.

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Reality Mining and Obscurity

Human Ethics is based upon 3 principles: The first is a claim that there is something bigger than the human being itself that supports every system of thought or natural law.  The second two are about how humans relate to one another in a social and political setting: Reciprocity and Anticipation. 

Reciprocity compels us to treat everyone as an equal, the proverbial “Golden Rule”.  Anticipation is the system of rules, knowledge, clues and taboos that enables us to predict how a human being will react in a certain situation, and ultimately how to evaluate and understand his or her actions in light of said rules.  The normative part of ethics if you will.  This simplification is a model of sorts to undestand Ethics as a whole.  The minute aspects of all ethical systems are varied.  But probably the majority of them will lead to this Ueber-model. 

The Model as such is a tool that enables us to understand complex behaviours when there is a lack of data or of time to analyze every aspect of a problem.  A model, if designed properly, can account for a large number of individual cases, but is only an approximation of the truth.  Many cases will be left out or details will not be considered.  And it is in the details that we really obtain meaning and identity.

So it is with the principle of Anticipation.  We create a model of the human being in a certain ethical, cultural and social setting.  We then use this model to predict and judge behaviours of individuals and groups.  The catch-phrases of the anticipatory model are everywhere in our culture as memes, sayings and “Binsenweisheiten“.  But it goes very much beyond phrases and memes.  The anticipatory system is the basis of the literary canon of western civilization, from Homer, Aquinas and Isidore to Freud, Shakespeare and Cervantes.  The Canon is our working model and hypothesis of the (western) human being.  It explains the passions, dreams, behaviours, love, comic… everything possibly human.  And it does so by force of repetition and approximation, rather than by facts and experimentation.   One of the books of the canonic scholar and literary critic Harold Bloom is aptly titled: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

But now fast forward.  Chris Anderson published recently an article in Wired questioning the validity of scientific models.  His point is, why do we need models if we can go for the real thing?  Today we have enormous amounts of data and information available, and moreover, have the computational capability to process an interpret such information.  This is going to have an impact on how we see and comprehend the world.

And what happens to the human model, the canon and the ethics?.  We have not only information about wordly things like traffic and weather, we also have a lot of information about how humans behave.  What they write and care about, what they think of events, how they react to catastrophes and how they fight against political systems.  Even information on how they buy, whom do they know and speak to, and where do they travel to.  The life of the “nomadic Cyborg” (W.Mitchell) is ever more lived out in the electronic Landscapes, Opens and Commons.

The practice of extracting this information, of making sense of all the data in the computer systems is called “Reality Mining“:  In other words, how to obtain a picture of reality from raw data in a non-normative way.  Don’t make assumptions (i.e. models) about reality, just extract reality from the data and understand it.

Alex Pentland of MIT Media Lab calls this “Honest Signals”.  It is about how we can extract a clear picture of the human being, its environment and its social operations.  With this information we can then make true statements about the affairs of the person and the social group.  This could have applications in a wide variety of situations, like to determine the social sentiment of a group (a happy group or a civil unrest) from the tone of their voices.  Or the emergence of public health problems and epidemics to be able to respond faster.

Nevertheless the demise of the model of the canon and the rise of Reality Mining in its stead opens up a series of questions, ethical, political and legal, that must be pointed out. 

First of all: Privacy.  Do we as citizens want to be exposed?  One of the rights of citizenship is the one that creates my private sphere.  And consequently the social civic sphere. 

Second: The political form of free will.  This area where we as a society still have the option to act out of free will and not in a perfectly anticipated way.  What happens to free will if there is no anticipation, no measure of freedom to act outside of predictability?  We need some degree of confidentiality to mantain the anticipatory system of Ethics.

Third: Social Capital.  This is an important question for the crafting of a digital citizenship.  The right of ownership and privacy of our personal information.   Who owns my social links and spheres of influence?  Everybody uses Social Capital for personal advantage: to obtain a job, to do sell or buy stuff, to be part of a Commons like the Internet.  If my Social Capital is in the hands of social networking sites, should I receive compensation?

Here are two interesting quotes.  One from Dr. Pentland speaking of Reality Mining, of which he says that “it’s an interesting Gods-eye view” (MIT Technology Review, 2008, TR10).  Of course he is referring to the possibilities to do good.

The second from Bjarne Stroust-Rup, when asked by MIT Technology Review (Jul/Aug 2008) about the Future of the Web: “The total end of privacy.  Governments, politicians, criminals, and friends will trawl through years of accumulated data (ours and what others collected) with unbelievably sophisticated tools.  Obscurity and time passed will no longer be covers.”

Obscurity and Doubt are a necessary part of every ethical and political system.  It is a precondition for freedom and justice.  We need to make sure that we don’t lose all of it following the New Enlightment movement of Reality Mining.


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